Homunculus (A Tale of Langdon St. Ives) by James P. Blaylock (book review).

A mighty airship has been sighted over London, descending towards Earth after fifteen years in the air. On the ground, shady dealings and nefarious plots intertwine as Langdon St. Ives and his associates try to piece together strange happenings. The dead are walking, rumours of a homunculus are spreading and everyone from the mad preacher to the evil millionaire seems to be interested in William Keeble’s fabulous boxes.


‘Homunculus’ by James P. Blaylock was first published in 1986 and this new edition has been released by Titan Books, beautifully printed in brown ink, to coincide with the release of a brand new Langdon St. Ives book, ‘The Aylesford Skull’. It is one of the earlier steampunk novels, set in a fictional Victorian London filled with mysterious contraptions and infernal devices. The plot is somewhat far-fetched but, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief for a few hours, I think you’ll find it entertaining.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this book, there are so many plots and characters that seem to overlap that getting from start to finish is a bit like making your way through a maze. At the centre of it all seem to be four boxes created by a toymaker named William Keeble. Two of these belonged to a man named Sebastian Owlesby, one containing a homunculus and the other a large emerald. One was designed as a part for St. Ives’ spaceship that he is building at his home in Harrogate and the final one is an almost-perpetual motion machine, a complex automaton designed as a gift for Keeble’s ward and apprentice, Jack Owlesby. Key to following the plot is keeping up with these boxes and who is in possession of each of them throughout the story. At times, it isn’t easy! It reminded me of the shell game where you have to follow which cup contains a walnut as the cups are shuffled around.

There is a whole host of villains, each with their own desires, some of whom are quite decidedly mad and others simply evil. Each of them wants to get hold of one of the boxes and the task of preventing the boxes from falling into the wrong hands goes to the members of the Trismegistus Club, Langdon St. Ives and his compatriots. This leads to dramatic chases through the streets of London, the use of often unconvincing disguises, many cunning plans and a good deal of gentlemanly bravado. Put together, this means that while some elements verge on the ridiculous, it’s great fun to read. This is an adventure story that certainly has a sense of humour.

Some of the characters were perhaps a bit shallow and I was surprised to find that Langdon St. Ives and Ignacio Narbondo, a recurring villain in the St. Ives series, were quite low key and played almost background parts in this tale. However, it didn’t matter because my attention was held by other characters, particularly the somewhat deranged, thoroughly disgusting and wonderfully named Willis Pule. It is quite unusual to find a book with so many main characters or perhaps simply without the usual one or two on whom all the action is centred. I think that the character depth suffered a bit because of this but it definitely helped to create the tangled plot with its myriad threads weaving in and out before coming to the final conclusions.

I found ‘Homunculus’ entertaining, with its cast of Victorian characters and ingenious contraptions making me smile. It’s a book that makes you cheer for the good guys and will give your imagination a great workout. Perhaps not a literary masterpiece but worth a few hours of your time.

Vinca Russell

(pub: Titan Books. 400 page paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN-13: 978-085768-982-5)
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